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  3. The Early Years

The Early Years

  • In June 1941, on the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802 prohibiting government contractors from engaging in employment discrimination based on race, color or national origin. This order is the first presidential action ever taken to prevent employment discrimination by private employers holding government contracts. The Executive Order applies to all defense contractors, but contains no enforcement authority. President Roosevelt signs the Executive Order primarily to ensure that there are no strikes or demonstrations disrupting the manufacture of military supplies as the country prepares for War.
    War Manpower Commission poster: Americans All -- '. . . it is the duty of employers and labor organizers to provide for the full participation of all workers without discrimination because of race, creed, color or national origin.' Franklin D. Roosevelt
    War Manpower Commission poster quoting FDR's Executive Order 8802
  • In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman orders the desegregation of the Armed Forces by Executive Order 9981. The order requires that there be "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." America's fighting forces are actually integrated only when the Korean War begins in 1952.
  • In May 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court decides Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas striking down all local, state, and federal laws that enforce racial segregation in public education. Newly-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren authors the opinion of the Court, stating: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . . . ."
  • In December 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a municipal bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She is arrested and is to be tried for disturbing the peace. The arrest prompts a group of black citizens to initiate a one-day boycott of the public bus system which leads to a series of pickets and eventually a year-long boycott of the Montgomery public bus system and selected merchants. The boycott is successful and Montgomery's public bus system is desegregated. A Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helps organize the boycott and by 1957, Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference has begun to press for equal rights across the South.
  • In September 1957, angry white mobs in Little Rock, Arkansas, opposing the court ordered desegregation of public schools, threaten violence. President Dwight D. Eisenhower orders federal troops to protect nine black students integrating Central High School in Little Rock.
  • In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy signs Executive Order 10925 prohibiting federal government contractors from discriminating on account of race and establishing the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Departing from previous presidential directives, this Order grants the Committee, initially chaired by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, authority to impose sanctions for violations of the Executive Order. President Kennedy states this enforcement authority signals a new "determination to end job discrimination once and for all."
    1961 Meeting of President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity

    President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson attend a meeting of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in the Cabinet Room of the White House

  • In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. selects Birmingham, Alabama as the location for continuing civil rights protests. Local law enforcement authorities attack the peaceful demonstrators using high pressure water hoses and police dogs. These scenes, broadcast nightly on the national news, stir the public conscience and bring about a demand for change.
  • In June 1963, Congress passes the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) protecting men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. The EPA is the first national civil rights legislation focusing on employment discrimination. The Department of Labor has responsibility for enforcement until 1978.
  • Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check ...
    It would be fatal for the Nation to overlook the urgency of the movement and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. So I say to you ... I still have a dream ... deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this Nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.... We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

    - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    In August 1963, approximately 250,000 Americans of all races march in Washington, D.C. for racial equality and justice. The large peaceful gathering assembles in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear speakers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech. This is the largest protest for racial justice in the country's history up to that time.
    March on Washington, view of crowd
    View from the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963
  • In September 1963, four black children are killed when Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist church is fire bombed by individuals opposing integration efforts.